Archive for the 'Science' Category


Molecular Evolution

Most people remember James Clerk Maxwell for his equations relating electric and magnetic fields, which revolutionized 19th-century science. But the Scottish physicist and mathematician was also an amateur poet, and this small collection, hosted by the University of Toronto, offers a rare insight into his opinions and personality:

Gin a body meet a body
Flyin’ through the air,
Gin a body hit a body,
Will it fly? and where?

That’s a “Rigid Body,” “singing,” in Maxwell’s verse “In Memory of Edward Wilson, Who Repented of What Was in His Mind to Write After Section”—a pastiche of Maxwell’s countryman Robert Burns. (“Section” here probably refers to a meeting of the British Association devoted to mathematics and physics.) It’s said that Maxwell used to sing these lines while accompanying himself on a guitar.

Also here are the revealingly whimsical “Molecular Evolution”:

What combinations of ideas,
Nonsense alone can wisely form!
What sage has half the power that she has,
To take the towers of Truth by storm?

… and the regrettable “Lectures to Women on Physical Science” (“To mirror heaven those eyes were given / And not for methods of precision”), as well as three other poems. Together they give a telling glimpse into the reflective and playful inner life of a giant in the canon of physics.


Molecular Evolution

At quite uncertain times and places,
The atoms left their heavenly path,
And by fortuitous embraces,
Engendered all that being hath.
And though they seem to cling together,
And form “associations” here,
Yet, soon or late, they burst their tether,
And through the depths of space career.
So we who sat, oppressed with science,
As British asses, wise and grave,
Are now transformed to wild Red Lions,
As round our prey we ramp and rave.
Thus, by a swift metamorphosis,
Wisdom turns wit, and science joke,
Nonsense is incense to our noses,
For when Red Lions speak, they smoke.
Hail, Nonsense! dry nurse of Red Lions,
From thee the wise their wisdom learn,
From thee they cull those truths of science,
Which into thee again they turn.
What combinations of ideas,
Nonsense alone can wisely form!
What sage has half the power that she has,
To take the towers of Truth by storm?
Yield, then, ye rules of rigid reason!
Dissolve, thou too, too solid sense!
Melt into nonsense for a season,
Then in some nobler form condense.
Soon, all too soon, the chilly morning,
This flow of soul will crystallize,
Then those who Nonsense now are scorning,
May learn, too late, where wisdom lies.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

11] “The `Red Lions’ are a club formed by Members of the British Association, to meet for relaxation after the graver labours of the day.” (Note by Campbell.)
17] “Leonum arida nutrix.” — Horace. (Note by Campbell.)

© Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society


Sublimation Point

One pleasure of poetry is in speed of movement. Another is in the slow curve of the mind in response to that speed: We gradually embrace, in the dreamy slow motion of thought, the meaning of each quick gesture. The word “quick” includes among its meanings the ideas “alive” and “sensitive.” And the word “ponder” connotes heaviness. The poem is quick, in all senses, and we enjoy pondering it.

For instance, we may read a poem like William Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle” or Frank O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings” many times, deliberately relishing at our leisure each tricky phrase or lightning-cut of transition.

A book, Jason Schneiderman’s Sublimation Point, has the fast thinker’s brilliance, where the rapid movement is both funny and, like so much comedy, quick-stepping, a teasing dance of avoidance and engagement with fear

By Robert Pinsky
© 2005 The Washington Post Company


Sublimation Point

The answer is entropy—how smell works—
little bits of everything—always spinning
off from where they were—flying off at random
into the world—which is to say into air.
There are other ways of solid to gas—
they’re substance specific, like iodine,
or dry ice—how I felt when I saw you—
straight to a new state without passing
through expected ones—as though enough
of me left at the moment you appeared that
I could never be whole without you—apply
heat—I turn straight into ether…

© –By Jason Schneiderman


The God Equation..

“With or without religion, good people will do good, and evil people will do evil. But for good people to do evil, that takes religion.” –Steven Weinberg

Pl read stimulating article by Ron Csillag published in Toronto Star..


Actually, since Pythagoras the relationship between men of numbers and the Deity has been more along the lines of love-hate, but it’s a rich vein

Which math-phobic among us has not beseeched God for help with another colon-clenching algebra or calculus exam? Had we heeded the words of the German mathematician Leopold Kronecker, perhaps we would have realized we’ve been talking to the wrong person: “God made the integers; all else is the work of man.”

Pythagoras, who gave us his eponymous theorem on right-angled triangles, headed a cult of number worshippers who believed God was a mathematician. “All is number,” they would intone.

The 17th-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza echoed the Platonic idea that mathematical law and the harmony of nature are aspects of the divine. Spinoza, too, posited that God’s activities in the universe were simply a description of mathematical and physical laws. For that and other heretical views, he was excommunicated by Amsterdam’s Jewish community.

German mathematician Georg Cantor’s work on infinity and numbers beyond infinity (the mystical “transfinite”) was denounced by theologians who saw it as a challenge to God’s infiniteness. Cantor’s obsession with mathematical infinity and God’s transcendence eventually landed him in an insane asylum.

For the Hindu math genius Ramanujan, an uneducated clerk from Madras who wowed early 20th-century Cambridge, an equation “had no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.” Though an agnostic, the prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos imagined a heavenly book in which God has inscribed the most elegant and yet unknown mathematical proofs.

And famously, Albert Einstein said God “does not play dice” with the universe.

What is it with God and mathematics? Even as science and religion have quarrelled for centuries and are only recently exploring ways to kiss and make up, mathematicians have been saying for millennia that no truer expression of the divine can be found than in an ethereally beautiful equation, formula or proof.

Witness, for example, such transcendent numbers as phi (not to be confused with pi), often called the Divine Proportion or the Golden Ratio. At 1.618, it describes the spirals of seashells, pine cones and symmetries found throughout nature. Other mysterious constants like alpha (one-137th) and gamma (0.5772…) pop up in enough odd places to suggest to some that they are an expression of the underlying beauty of mathematics, and to others that someone or something planned it that way.

But does that translate into actual belief ?

The New York Times reported recently that mathematicians believe in God at a rate 2 1/2 times that of biologists, quoting a survey of the National Academy of Sciences. Admittedly, that’s not saying much: Only 14.6 per cent of mathematicians embraced the God hypothesis, versus 5.5 per cent of biologists (versus some 80 per cent of Canadians who believe in a supreme being).

Count John Allen Paulos among the non-believers. A mathematician who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia and who has popularized his subject in bestselling books such as Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, Paulos’s latest offering is a slim but explosive volume whose title is self-explanatory: Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up (Hill & Wang).

This newest addition to the neo-atheist field crowded by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others emboldened by the recent transformation of non-belief from a 97-pound weakling into a he-man, Paulos thankfully employs little math, preferring to see things, as he tells us, in the stark light of “logic and probability.”

Deploying “a lightly heretical touch,” he dissects a playlist of “golden oldies” that includes the first-cause argument (sometimes tweaked as the cosmological argument, which hinges on the Big Bang), the argument for intelligent design, the ontological argument (crudely, that if we can conceive of God, then God exists), the argument from the anthropic principle (that the universe is “fine-tuned” to allow us to exist), the moral universality argument, and others.

The famous Pascal’s wager – that it’s in our self-interest to believe in God because we lose nothing in case He does exist – is upended as logically flawed, based on what statisticians call Type I and Type II errors.

Lord knows Paulos isn’t the first mathematician to proclaim his lack of religious faith. Cambridge’s famous wunderkind G.H. Hardy loudly and proudly adjudged God to be his enemy. To Erdos, God, if He existed, was “the supreme fascist.”

Even as Paulos works to refute the classical arguments for God’s existence, he does something too few of his mindset do: Chide non-believers for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“It’s repellent for atheists or agnostics,” he admonishes, “to personally and aggressively question others’ faith or pejoratively label it as benighted flapdoodle or something worse. Those who do are rightfully seen as arrogant and overbearing.”

That doesn’t prevent him from doffing the gloves. The ontological argument is “logical abracadabra.” The design, or teleological argument, is a “creationist Ponzi scheme” that “quickly leads to metaphysical bankruptcy.”

Much of theology is “a kind of verbal magic show.” A claim that a holy book is inerrant because the book itself says so is another logical black hole.

However, math, specifically something called Ramsey theory, which studies the conditions under which order must appear, can account for the illusion of divine order arising from chaos.

Paulos provides a nice counterpoint to theoretical physicist Stephen Unwin’s 2003 book The Probability of God, which calculated the likelihood of God’s existence at 67 per cent, and to Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne’s use of a probability formula known as Bayes’ theorem to put the odds of Christ’s resurrection at 97 per cent.

Those and other efforts remind one of the story, perhaps apocryphal, of Catherine the Great’s request of the German mathematical giant Leonhard Euler to confront atheist French philosopher Denis Diderot with evidence of God. The visiting Euler agreed, and at the meeting, strode forward to proclaim to the innumerate Frenchman: “Sir, (a+bn)/n = x, hence God exists. Reply!”

Diderot was said to be so dumbfounded, he immediately returned to Paris.

To Paulos, the tale is a great example of “how easily nonsense proffered in an earnest and profound manner can browbeat someone into acquiescence.”

His arguments notwithstanding, Paulos concedes that there’s “no way to conclusively disprove the existence of God.” The reason, he notes, is a consequence of basic logic, but not one “from which theists can take much heart.”

As for the problem of good and evil, he defers to fellow atheist, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg: “With or without religion, good people will do good, and evil people will do evil. But for good people to do evil, that takes religion.”

Or as Paulos might say, no mathematician has ever deliberately flown planes into buildings.

© Copyright Toronto Star- Ron Csillag January 26, 2008


The Earth Whirls Everywhere

The Earth Whirls Everywhere
by Dava Sobel

The spheres of science and poetry probably intersect in all eleven dimensions, for poems, like discoveries, spring from insights of unusual acumen, expressed in concise, often symbolic language. I sincerely believe that e=mc2 could be construed as haiku.

When I was writing Longitude, I searched poetry anthologies for epigraphs that would open each chapter with a link between science and art—as a way to invite the non-scientist into the technical world of astronomers, clock-makers, and cartographers. I was surprised but elated to find that Lord Byron had included reference to “the best time-piece made by Harrison” (the inventor of the marine chronometer) in Don Juan. Even more apt lines came from The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll (who, under his real name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, lectured and wrote about mathematics):


“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!”

While studying the science of seventeenth-century Italy for Galileo’s Daughter, I discovered that Galileo, who laid the foundations of modern physics, prized the poetry of his countrymen Torquato Tasso and Ludovico Ariosto. Galileo committed a great deal of Latin and Tuscan poetry to memory, according to his son’s account, and could recite the better part of Orlando Furioso by heart. He also wrote poetry. At least six of his sonnets have survived, as well as two longer poems of about two hundred lines each, and one extremely long work of three hundred lines—a rhyming diatribe against what he called “the wearing of the gown.” This poem argues that faculty members should not be forced to wear their academic robes, as was the practice at the University of Pisa when Galileo began teaching there in 1589. In fact, he said forcefully at the close of the first stanza, the best thing in the world would be for everyone to go naked, so that men and women could honestly assess each other’s virtues. This sentiment is now quoted—and duly attributed to Galileo—in a featured position on the Web site of Associazione Naturista Italiana, the Italian nudist society.

In my latest book, The Planets, I used poetry throughout the chapter about Venus as a way to equate the planet with beauty. So many classic and modern poets have addressed “the evening star” or “the planet of love” that I felt certain I could introduce each scientific concept with part of a poem. The extraordinary brightness of Venus, for example, which is due to its proximity to Earth and also its dense covering of reflective clouds, is perfectly portrayed in Robert Frost’s “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus.”

Continue reading ‘The Earth Whirls Everywhere’



Symmetry— Essay: By K.C. Cole


People say that nothing is perfect. I beg to differ. The notion of symmetry is both perfect and nothing—a combination that gives it unreasonable effectiveness in physics.

Summing up 50 years of progress in fundamental physics, David Gross recently concluded: “The secret of nature is symmetry.” Everyone gets seduced by symmetry in one form or another, whether it’s the symmetry inherent in snowflakes or snail shells, kaleidoscopes or decorative tiles. But in physics, symmetry is more than just a pretty face. As Emmy Noether showed, there are symmetries behind every fundamental law.

This makes sense, because a symmetry describes what doesn’t vary even as things change—the solid truth beneath the superficial difference. Einstein, who first made symmetry central to physics, exposed a wealth of these pseudo-differences—including those between energy and matter, space and time. (As Einstein so often pointed out, his theories aren’t so much about things that are relative as things which are invariant.)

The late Frank Oppenheimer even cited the Golden Rule as an example of symmetry: If you do unto others as you’d like others to do unto you, and the doer and doee change places, it shouldn’t make a difference. Of course, a snowflake is symmetrical in that you can rotate it 60 degrees without making a discernible difference. But if you rotate it 5 degrees, the symmetry is shattered. To a physicist, the puddle the snowflake melts into is much more symmetrical: snowflakes can be individuals, but drops of water all look alike.

Turning snowflakes into drops of water is essentially what the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva will be trying to do—melting matter to reveal underlying symmetries.

If supersymmetric particles turn up at high energies, for example, it will mean that bosons and fermions—which seem like apples and oranges—have fallen off the same family tree. Each quark will have its squark; each photon its photino—a perfectly symmetrical team. The symmetry lost when the universe cooled will be, for the moment, restored.


Even more beautiful symmetries appear at even higher energies. Heat up the universe to big bang temperatures, and the wildly diverse family of forces turns into one. String theory, with its tangled 10-dimensional topologies, is more symmetrical still; with so much room to move about, there are ample ways for the same thing (the string) to appear in radically different forms (quarks, gravity).

Continue reading ‘Symmetry..’


Philosophy & Language..


Philosophy is written in this grand book-
I mean the universe – Which stands
Continually open to our gaze,
But it cannot be understood,
Unless one first learns to comprehend the language
And interpret the character in which it is written.

– Galileo Galilei , Il Saggiatore


On the Nature of Things

On the Nature of Things (Latin: De rerum natura) is a first century BC epic poem by Lucretius that grandly proclaims the reality of man’s role in a universe without a god to help him along. It is a statement of personal responsibility in a world in which everyone is driven by hungers and passions with which they were born and do not understand.


Again, if movement always is connected,
New Motions coming in from old in order fixed,
If atoms never swerve and make beginning
Of motions that can break the bonds of fate
And foil the infinite chain of cause and effect
What is the origin of this free will
Possessed by living creatures throughout the earth?

-Lucretius (ca. 94-ca. 55 B.C.), Titus Lucretius Carus, was a Latin poet and philosopher. His one work, “De rerum natura”, a didactic poem in hexameters, renders in verse the atomistic philosophy of Epicurus, forerunner of the modern-day atomic theory.

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